A slice of heaven
>From wafer-thin Sardinian carasau to hearty French fougasse, Mark Hix reveals
why flatbreads mean more than just pizza
15 May 2004
It’s been reinvented countless times – from thin and crispy to deep
pan, and even, I fear, deep-fried. It’s many children’s favourite
tea-time treat and one of the most popular foods in the world. How
long since you had a slice? That’s right, I’m talking pizza.
Underneath the toppings, inauthentic and unrecognisable to Italians,
pizza’s just one of many types of flatbread. There’s even competition
from other flatbreads on many a restaurant strip, from the Indian
versions – naan, chapattis, rotis and poppadoms – that are used to
mop up the curry late on a Friday night.
Flatbreads are quick to cook in tandoor ovens, on slabs of stone and
open-air griddles. Even over here we have centuries-old breads like
boxty and bannock cooked on skillets.
Even if you’ve never had boxty or bannock you’ve probably eaten plenty
of flatbread over the years. If I remind you of that late-night
kebab – assuming the chilli sauce stain down your jacket isn’t
enough of a reminder – it’s merely to show how much flatbread there
is around. Trouble is few kebab shops actually roll the damn things
up properly. They use slightly stale pitta and by the time you’ve
got the meat, salad and chilli sauce in, it falls straight through
and you have to get back in the queue for another one. The best,
like the Lebanese Ranoush Juice in London’s Edgware Road, use proper,
delicious fresh flatbread to wrap up the chicken in garlicky yogurt,
protected by greaseproof paper for easy bite-sized munching.
Flatbreads are the world’s oldest breads. From Mesopotamia and Persia
to southern India and Armenia, from Ancient Rome via pre-conquest
Mexico to modern-day China and Italy, wherever there’s a good supply
of grain – be it wheat, rye, corn, oats or buckwheat – they’ve been
a staple food.
Leavening and fermentation agents, not just baking powder and yeast,
but also those made from natural substances like fruits and vegetables
left to ferment and produce gases and alcohol, are used to give the
dough all sorts of textures and flavours. Some breads are thick enough
to slice, some so thin they’re almost transparent, and some perfect
for rolling up round a filling and eating on the move – not just at
a bus stop after midnight.
This Sardinian poppadom-like bread has lots of nick names including
carta di musica (music bread), parchment bread and Sardinian shepherd’s
bread. It’s a great addition to a bread basket or with Italian
cheeses. The making and rolling is a little tricky to begin with
but once you get the hang of it it can be quite therapeutic. Various
flavourings, such as grated Parmesan, dried chilli flakes, crushed
fennel seeds and thinly sliced dried onions, can be rolled into the
dough. The essential ingredient is semolina which few of us have to
hand as semolina and sago puddings are no longer cool. Who knows,
though, maybe they’ll become the next jelly.
This bread would traditionally be cooked in a stone-based pizza oven,
but either a pizza stone or a large unglazed quarry tile placed on
your oven rack works well. Otherwise bake on a pre-heated baking tray.
100g semolina or polenta
80g strong white flour
100ml warm water
1tsp fine sea salt
1tbsp sea salt flakes like Maldon
Pre-heat the oven to 200ÂºC/390ÂºF/gas mark 6. Mix the semolina,
flour, water and fine salt together to a smooth dough, but do not knead
it. Divide into 6 balls and shape them between your thumb and fingers
into rounds. Keep them covered with a tea towel to stop them drying
out while you roll each out on a floured table as thin as you can into
rough 25cm circles. If you are flavouring them, roll in the flavouring
when they are about half the size you need them. Don’t worry if you
can’t get them perfectly round – rustic, natural shapes look good.
Bake a couple at a time on the pre-heated baking trays or stones for
about 3-4 minutes, turning them over after 2 minutes. They shouldn’t
be coloured too much and tend to have an uneven mottled effect when
done. Once they are all cooked, put them somewhere warm for a few
hours to dry out more, then store them in a sealed tin or container.
Makes 2 loaves
Is fougasse, the famous hearth bread of Provence, poised to be the
new focaccia? Sainsbury’s do one baked with caramelised onions and
cheese and I’m always tempted to grab a loaf when I see them in stock,
as they tend not to hang around on the shelves too long.
It’s a simple rustic bread, flat enough to be topped with olives,
herbs or, as I’ve done here, some gently cooked sliced onions and
cheese. You can add a percentage of wholegrain flour if you wish,
or just use strong bread flour.
300g strong white bread flour
100g whole wheat flour
1 x 7g sachet easybake or dried yeast
75ml olive oil
225ml warm water
for the onion and cheese version
2 onions, sliced
Knob of butter
50g GruyÃ¨re or Emmental, grated
If you’re doing the onion and cheese version, gently cook the onions
in the butter for 10 minutes in a pan with the lid on, stirring every
so often, until the onions are soft and almost caramelised. Put to
Put all the bread ingredients into a food mixer with the dough hook
attachment. Mix to a soft dough and knead for 5 minutes on a f low
speed. You may need to stop the machine occasionally and scrape the
sides of the bowl so that everything gets mixed. Or mix by hand until
the mixture forms a smooth dough and knead for 10 minutes.
Shape the dough into two rough oval shapes and make 3 slits across the
bread with a knife, cutting right through the dough. Stretch it with
your hands and a rolling pin to about 30cm long. Put the loaves on
to greased baking sheets, cover with cling film or a clean tea towel
and leave in a warm place to prove until doubled in volume. Allow up
to an hour for this.
Pre-heat the oven to 190ÂºC/375ÂºF/gas mark 5. Then bake for 30
minutes. If you’re adding the cheese and onion or another topping,
take the bread out of the oven just before it’s done, sprinkle the
flavourings evenly over the bread, and return to the oven for 5
minutes. Eat the bread as soon as you can.
As an alternative to caramelised onions and cheese, try adding olives,
rosemary, baked cloves of garlic (bake in their skins but remove these
before adding to the dough), cooked pieces of bacon and onions. Press
them into the almost cooked loaf and finish off as before.
Turkish pizza (lahmacun)
Makes about 12 small or 6 large
Just up the road from where I live in east London is the Turkish
community, where you will find flower shops, hairdressers and
takeaways open all night. Every so often you will come across a shop
specialising in lahmacun, the delicious Turkish equivalent of pizza –
thin bread, topped with spicy minced lamb. They’re served straight
from the oven until they run out, and that’s your lot. You can’t get
anything simpler and better to eat.
100g plain flour
100g wholewheat flour
100ml warm water
1tsp (3g) dried yeast
1tbsp olive oil
for the topping
2tbsp olive oil
250g minced lamb
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
13 tsp ground cinnamon
13 tsp ground allspice
3 tomatoes, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp pine nuts
1tbsp chopped mint
Dissolve the honey and yeast in the warm water. Put the 2 flours, olive
oil and salt into a mixing machine with the dough hook attachment and
add the water and yeast mixture. Mix for 2-3 minutes, you may need to
stop the machine if it’s a large bowl and scrape the sides to make sure
all the ingredients are mixed. By hand mix the ingredients together
to a smooth dough, and knead for 5 minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl,
cover with cling film and leave the dough somewhere warm to rise for
about an hour until the mixture has doubled in volume.
While the dough is rising prepare the topping. Season and fry the lamb
and onion in the olive oil, on a high heat, with the garlic, cinnamon
and allspice for 3-4 minutes until lightly coloured, stirring every so
often. Add the tomatoes, turn down the heat and continue cooking for
3-4 minutes stirring every so often. The mix should be fairly dry,
if not leave it on the heat for another minute or so. Add the pine
nuts and mint and leave to cool.
Transfer the dough on to a lightly floured surface and with the heel
of your hands knock the air out of the dough so it returns to its
original size. Divide the mixture into 12 pieces and shape them with
your thumb and fingers into little rounds.
Pre-heat the oven to 200ÂºC/390ÂºF/gas mark 6. Roll out the pieces
to circles about 8-10 cm and put them on to lightly oiled baking
trays. Spoon the mixture on thinly in the centre, leaving about 1cm
boarder around the edge. Cook for 6-7 minutes and eat immediately.
This is not actually a bread, but more of a pan-fried potato cake or
pancake from Ireland. Eat as a tea-time snack with preserves or cheese,
or put mushrooms or even sautÃ©ed lambs kidneys on top for supper.
You will need floury potatoes – King Edwards or Cara – for the mash.
450g potato, peeled and grated
450g dry mashed potato (just boiled potatoes, without milk or butter)
220g self-raising flour, sifted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for cooking
Squeeze the grated potato in a dry cloth to remove all the starch. Mix
with the dry mash and the sifted flour. Gradually add the milk (you
may not need all of it) to form a thick batter. Season.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a non-stick pan and add a
couple of large tablespoons of the batter. Fry the mix on a low heat
for around 4 minutes on either side, until golden brown. Repeat with
the rest of the mix and re-heat them in a medium oven to serve.